Maybe Henry Louis Gates Has Stereotypes Too

A mostly political weblog.
July 22 2009 4:22 PM

Maybe Henry Louis Gates Has Stereotypes Too

Henry Louis Gates Jr.  tells his daughter in The Daily Beast  about his arrest for disorderly conduct:

If I had been white this incident never would have happened. He would have asked at the door, "Excuse me, are you okay? Because there are two black men around here try’na rob you [laughter] and I think he also violated the rules by not giving his name and badge number, and I think he would have given that to one of my white colleagues or one of my white neighbors . [E.A.]

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Hmm. In my experience, cops never give out their badge and number, regardless of what the "rules" say and regardless of how white I am. I tried it in the '60s and '70s at anti-war demonstrations, it didn't work. Last year, when Manchester, New Hampshire police pulled me over during the Dem primary  because they thought I was a pimp , one of the women in my car repeatedly asked one of the cops for his name. He was very friendly but totally ignored the request. Nobody wants to get sued. (Of course, she was probably asking him because she wanted to interview him, not sue him, but he didn't know that.) I'm in talks with PBS about a documentary. I've also learned it never pays to talk back at cops.

P.S.: Here's the key passage of Gates' account in The Root, after a Cambridge cop asks him to step out onto his porch and Gates refuses:

My lawyers later told me that that was a good move and had I walked out onto the porch he could have arrested me for breaking and entering. He said 'I’m here to investigate a 911 call for breaking and entering into this house.’ And I said 'That’s ridiculous because this happens to be my house. And I’m a Harvard professor.’ He says 'Can you prove that you’re a Harvard professor?’ I said yes, I turned and closed the front door to the kitchen where I’d left my wallet, and I got out my Harvard ID and my Massachusetts driver’s license which includes my address and I handed them to him. And he’s sitting there looking at them.

Now it’s clear that he had a narrative in his head: A black man was inside someone’s house, probably a white person’s house, and this black man had broken and entered, and this black man was me.

So he’s looking at my ID, he asked me another question, which I refused to answer. And I said I want your name and your badge number because I want to file a complaint because of the way he had treated me at the front door. He didn’t say, 'Excuse me, sir, is there a disturbance here, is this your house?’—he demanded that I step out on the porch, and I don’t think he would have done that if I was a white person.

But at that point, I realized that I was in danger. And so I said to him that I want your name, and I want your badge number and I said it repeatedly. [E.A.]

a) Isn't it pretty clear that Gates had a narrative in his head too? b) What was the question he refused to answer? c) Just reading this passage--Gates' own words--it seems to me he pops into litigious mode a little quickly. He says he wanted to file a complaint "because of the way he treated me at the front door." How had he mistreated him at the front door? He asked him 'Would you step outside onto the porch?' (where, as Gates notes, the cop would have more rights). When Gates refuses and instead gives the cop an ID, the cop looks at the ID. And at that point Gates has already determined he's been treated unfairly. He's already refusing to answer questions and planning to file a complaint . Again, from his own words it looks like he rushes a bit to the conclusion that a white man in a similar situation would have been treated differently.  Is that really true?  I'm not saying that Gates wasn't stereotyped in a deeply annoying and disturbing way. Just saying the stereotypes can run both ways. ... 2:02 P.M.

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